By Gary Marx Tribune foreign correspondent
Montel St. Louis was asleep with his four young children when the floodwaters blew into his home.
Choking on water and pounded by rocks, the 42-year-old farmer tore open a hole in his ceiling and struggled to the roof. He could not save his two daughters and two sons, who were swept away in one of the worst natural disasters in this island nation in years.
“I watched them fall, and I couldn’t rescue them. I can’t swim,” St. Louis said. “My house is still under water. God only knows what I will do. I’ve lost my family. I have no food. I have no house. I have nothing.”
Four days after flooding from heavy rains submerged much of this town and the surrounding area and killed perhaps as many as 1,000 people, St. Louis and more than 2,000 stunned survivors gathered on the edge of a makeshift landing strip Friday to receive their first emergency assistance.
There were stories of unspeakable tragedy.
Many of the victims were buried alive by mudslides as they slept. Others frantically clung to palm trees and rooftops, only to be swept away and killed by the rising waters that submerged Mapou and the surrounding area under as much as 25 feet of water.
Whole families disappeared in a flash.
Yet, amid the tragedy, shock and sadness, there also were stories of heroism–local residents who lashed together makeshift rafts to save others–as well as miraculous escapes.
Lionel Jean, 25, said he was sleeping alone when the floodwaters hit. The water lifted his bed off the ground and out of the house, where Jean managed to escape unharmed despite being pounded by water and rocks.
But Jean said 11 relatives, including his mother and sister, died in the flooding.
“I’m the only one who survived,” Jean said.
Lt. Col. Duane Perry, a Marine coordinating the relief effort Friday in Mapou, said that unconfirmed reports put the death toll at 1,000 residents, but relief officials say it is impossible get an accurate count. Haitian officials put the death toll at 592 throughout the country.
Food supplies go fast
Perry said enough beans, rice, cooking oil and bottled water to feed 1,500 people for a week were airlifted into Mapou on Friday. But he said that 2,500 people showed up to receive assistance, forcing relief officials to give each resident enough to last only for two or three days.
“We have had to ration the supplies so that everyone can get something,” Perry said.
Many residents said they had not eaten in days because their corn, beans and other crops were destroyed by the floods. Cows, goats, pigs and other livestock also perished, some floating lifeless in the muddy water that collected in pools the size of small lakes.
In addition to the deaths in Mapou, Monday’s floods killed at least 300 more people in other areas of southeastern Haiti. Just across the border in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, 442 bodies have been recovered.
At Fonds Verettes, about 10 miles north of Mapou on the slopes of the La Selle mountains, several hundred residents gathered Friday in a dry river bed where 165 people were killed by a 50-yard-wide wall of water and mud. The survivors were clamoring for assistance.
“People are very discouraged,” said Etienne Belneau, a local priest. “They have lost everything.”
UN officials say they are scheduled to deliver 54 tons of food to Fonds Verrettes on Saturday, along with an additional 8 tons to Thiotte, a small community west of Mapou. The official said that they expected to return to Mapou with 21 tons of food.
On Friday, U.S. and Canadian military helicopters airlifted supplies and relief officials throughout the morning and early afternoon.
As Marines and soldiers from an international peacekeeping force stood guard, desperate Haitians–some carrying the only possessions they had left–lined up patiently for hours to collect food.
Local residents working for the aid groups shouted instructions in Creole to the crowd over bullhorns.
There were few outburst of anger as groups of residents moved to the center of the airfield to fill small plastic jugs with cooking oil before lugging away huge white sacks of donated rice.
“Hallelujah!” screamed Maria Emmanuella, 40, dropping to her knees and lifting her arms in prayer as the relief supplies were distributed.
There also were stories of heroism.
Fodnor Francique, 36, who lost three relatives in the floods, said that on Tuesday he lashed together two palm fronds, some planks and door for a makeshift raft and rescued 11 people stranded on rooftops.
Other Mapou residents conducted similar rescues as the floodwaters raged.
“Some people were calling, `Come and save me. I’m dying,'” recalled Francique. “There were some people who we could not save. There were a lot of dead bodies floating.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross set up a makeshift hospital in a schoolhouse about 50 yards from the landing strip.
Sliced by debris
Inside, four patients lay on a bare concrete floor, at least two with gaping wounds suffered when aluminum roofing and other debris injured them after being torn free by the wind and rain. Many other survivors suffered broken bones.
Erich Baumann, a local Red Cross official, said that about a half-dozen of the most seriously wounded have been airlifted to Port-au-Prince for treatment.
“There is nothing,” said Baumann, sweating and downcast as he rested for a moment inside the schoolhouse. “They are just starting to bring people. I have no idea how many are injured.”
One resident waiting for medical treatment was Edgar Pierre, who was cradling his injured 7-month-old daughter. His 2-year-old daughter stood beside him.
Pierre also was sleeping in his home when the floods hit. Yet he managed to pull his two daughters to safety. But the 7-month-old nearly drowned and is now seriously ill, with dried blood caked around her ears and her ankles and feet grotesquely swollen.
Pierre also has to live with the memory of watching his wife die in the floodwaters.
“I didn’t get a chance to grab her,” said Pierre, who managed to scramble with his daughters to the roof. “All I could do is watch her get washed away.”